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GUATEMALA: Incoming Government Has Its Job Cut Out

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 16 2011 (IPS) - One of the highest poverty levels in Latin America, one of the highest murder rates in the world, and much-needed political and tax reforms are some of the pressing challenges that will face Guatemalan president-elect Otto Pérez Molina.

Otto Pérez Molina Credit: Surizar/CC BY SA 2.0

Otto Pérez Molina Credit: Surizar/CC BY SA 2.0

“It is essential for the government that will take office in January (for four years) to seek a national consensus on these priority issues,” Adrián Zapata, director of the Institute of Research and Analysis on National Problems of the public University of San Carlos (IPNUSAC), told IPS.

The expert said tax and fiscal reforms are crucial to ensuring the availability of funds for social spending to fight poverty, “whose most dramatic effect is malnutrition.”

This Central American country of 14 million people has the highest child malnutrition rate in Latin America and one of the highest in the world, with 49 percent of children under five undernourished, according to the U.N. children’s fund, UNICEF.

“Although it is widespread, the most acute poverty is found in rural areas, which should be the priority focus. The path to follow is integrated agricultural development, the only way to combat rural poverty in a sustainable manner,” Zapata said.

Other critical issues, the expert said, are strengthening the justice system and bringing down skyrocketing crime rates. Increased safety is one of the most pressing demands of the public, whose expectations were raised by the campaign promises of Pérez Molina, a retired army general who oversaw a military intelligence unit during the 1960-1996 armed conflict, to get tough on crime.

Guatemala’s 36-year civil war claimed the lives of 200,000 people, mainly Maya Indians in the rural highlands. And violence and social conflict remain a serious problem.

A report released by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development in October lists Guatemala among the seven most violent countries in the world.

The murder rate stands at 52 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), while 75 percent of the population is poor, according to the World Bank.

And U.N. figures report that around 98 percent of crimes go unpunished in this country, where the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a unique U.N.-sponsored initiative, was set up in 2008 to strengthen and purge the country’s notoriously weak and corrupt justice system.

Zapata also stressed the urgent need for legislative approval of political reforms. The current system is criticised as too lax in oversight of party and campaign financing, and for excluding the participation of indigenous people, young people and women.

“The magnitude of the problems we are facing makes broad national agreements essential,” he said, adding that “the new government has the responsibility to spearhead these processes, although the responsibility is shared with the political opposition and the entire spectrum of social actors.”

The indigenous population, women, health and education must also be priorities of the new government led by the rightwing Pérez Molina and his running-mate Roxana Baldetti, who won the Nov. 6 runoff and will take office Jan. 14.

Hortencia Simón, an activist with the Political Association of Maya Moloj Women, told IPS that during the outgoing government of social democratic President Álvaro Colom “there have been setbacks” with regard to the question of the rights of women and indigenous people.

“A lot of attention was put on rhetoric, but not on practice,” she complained.

“Moreover, violence in all of its forms continues to reign in the country,” while the budget for government institutions addressing the problems faced by Amerindians, such as the Indigenous Development Fund and the Defensoría de la Mujer Indígena (DEMI), which protects the rights of indigenous women, “was limited,” she added.

According to official statistics, indigenous people make up 40 percent of the Guatemalan population, although their associations and international NGOs put the proportion at more than 60 percent.

The native population is the most disadvantaged, and suffers discrimination and exclusion. Nearly 59 percent of indigenous children under five were malnourished in the 2008-2009 period – nearly double the rate among non-indigenous children, according to a government report published in 2010.

Simón also mentioned healthcare and education as “essential pillars in fighting poverty.”

She acknowledged that the Colom administration enforced, for the first time in decades, the constitutional mandate that public education is to be completely free of charge for all children. Until 2009, parents had to pay registration and other fees.

School enrolment has climbed since the fees were struck down.

“But we can’t say that students are receiving quality education, when there are 50 students crammed into a classroom with a capacity for only 35,” Simón added.

Since Colom’s administration began in January 2008, it put a priority on social spending, introducing a number of programmes that all of the candidates, including Pérez Molina, pledged to continue and expand.

The programmes, grouped under the name “Social Cohesion”, include Mi Familia Progresa (My Family Is Making Progress), Bolsa Solidaria (food aid), Comedores Solidarios (subsidised cafeterias), Escuelas Abiertas (schools open on the weekends), Becas Solidarias (solidarity scholarships), Mi Comunidad Produce (My Community Produces), Todos Listos Ya (a youth music programme) and Todos Juntos por el Lago (Everyone Together for the Lake).

The challenge now will be for the new government to keep its promise to bolster social spending.

Public finances in general are a problem, Ricardo Barrientos, an economist at the Guatemala City-based Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), told IPS.

In order for the state to obtain the resources necessary to meet its obligations and address the myriad challenges, the legislature must urgently approve an overhaul of the tax system, which Colom was unable to push through despite several attempts, due to fierce opposition from the private sector.

“The reforms have to be comprehensive; in other words, taxes must be fair and based on ability to pay; those who have more should pay more,” he said.

The ICEFI study estimates that, in order for the future government to live up to its pledge to double the budget of the agriculture minister and provide security, jobs, education and healthcare, an additional 1.7 billion dollars would be needed on top of the 7.6 billion dollar budget for 2012.

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